Is it me that exist in the past lives?

Well, I used to be advised not to title a post (or an essay or a paper) with a question sentence, but somehow I could not resist it here. I kind of don’t agree with the advise anyway. Continuing from the previous posts about karma, it seems that there is something that is still left unsaid or unclarified. That is, what is the identity of the persons who existed in one’s previous lives? Are they one and the same as the one who is living now, or are they different persons?

The doctrine of reincarnation is a very old one and it certainly predated Buddhism. The simple picture of the theory is that there is a soul which transmigrates. It changes the bodies as if it is changing its clothes. So in this sense my previous lives essentially belong to me, because there is this *me* that travels around in various “clothing” or bodies. This is subscribed by the Hindus and Jains and I think in some way this belief did penetrated into Greek thinking also (viz. Pythagoras and some others).

However, the Buddha did deny that doctrine. Since he emphasizes that there is no such thing as an ego, there is nothing that transmigrates and there is certainly nothing that remains the same in these various “clothings.” However, the Buddha did not deny that past lives exist either. Which makes the whole thing much more difficult. The usual explanation of this is through an analogy. Let us look at a flame on a candle. In one way it is one flame, because it is there. We can see it. But on a closer look the flame is strictly speaking not a thing at all. It is an appearance of a rather complex chemical phenomenon when oxygen is entering into some other elements in the candle such as carbon and water and gives out heat, light and carbon dioxide (well, I am not a chemist, as you can see but you get the point). Since this is a process, we had better call this an event rather than a thing. It is “flaming” rather than “a flame.”

According to the Buddha, the picture is the same for our bodily and mental composition that we usually call our body or our “self.” First of all, we are all breathing every moment we are alive (we are just not aware of this all the time). The oxygen enters our lungs and sparks the very same kind of process that is taking place on the candle. Each cell in the body is also a chemical factory, consuming energy and oxygen and gives out enzymes, or whatever that is needed for the survival of the body. So everything is a process. We can also look deeper than the chemistry and get into the physics of it, to the basic physical structure of the atoms that make up the body, and then we see the process picture will be more pronounced.

Now let’s look at our mental episodes. Right now I am typing on this editor in WordPress, trying to say what I would like to say. The doctrine of the soul would have it that there is a soul, a ‘homunculus,’ one might say, that ultimately does the thinking and the directing of the movements of the fingers on the keyboard to type out all these words. However, this is not borne by empirical fact. All there is is the brain and the brain is nothing but a very huge collection of nerve cells, none of which can lay claim to being the soul that is mentioned in the theory.

So perhaps the soul might be something immaterial. Perhaps it is something that is purely in the mental realm in the Cartesian dualistic sense. Or perhaps in the Hindu sense of the immaterial soul that animates this body. Or perhaps it is there in the Kantian sense of the “Transcendental Unity of Apperception” (oh how I love these high sounding words) that does the binding together of all these disparate mental episodes so that they make sense.

But then Buddhist would say something like — are we putting the cart before the horse here? It is because we (or most of us) tend to have this sense of our selves that we devise all these fanciful ways of accounting for them? What if there is no such sense at all? Would that make any difference in terms of how the body is functioning or how the mind works? It is clear that such a self does not exist in bodily or physical terms and in mental terms since all our mental episodes are changing rapidly and we do not remember everything so there is no thing that stays the same in all the memory episodes that substantially connect all our episodes either. (The picture is more like there is a thread in the memory that links up with other threads and one usually gets a sense of who one is by remembering only some of these threads rather than the whole thing. But this means that there has to be something deeper that tells us that these threads are enough and we are now “convinced” that we are one and the same.)

It is precisely this sense of believing that there has to be something, some enduring thing, that answers to the pronoun “I” that is the root cause of our wanderings in samsara, the root cause of all the defilements. More on this later. But the point here is that, if this is the case, then strictly speaking we cannot say that the person who existed in the past was or is the same person as I am right now. Even though there might be some connection, some cause and effect relations, between a particular person and myself, still it would be wrong to say that that person is ‘me.’ This is because that person had to exist in a context — his society, his community, his circle of friends and relatives and so on — and within that context he had an identity, which is definitely not ‘me’ at all.

So he (or she) is his own person, and I am my own person, although what he did did have some effects on me. So on the one hand, it is not me who existed in the past, but that does not mean that there is no cause and effect relation either. Past karmas do have some effects on our present constitution, but that is not the point. The point is for us to realize the truth that the sense of there being an ego, a self, is the root cause of defilements that are binding us within this samsara. And we need to get away from that.


4 thoughts on “Is it me that exist in the past lives?

  1. dougrogers June 10, 2008 / 8:34 pm

    What I understand is that the ‘habit energy’ is what is reborn, the attachment is reborn – moment by moment, even in each breath, and/or at each lifetime. The sense of “I”, “Me” is reborn, but not personality.

  2. soraj June 16, 2008 / 10:32 am

    Thanks for your comments. I think you are right. Some kind of “energy” got transferred during the process of taking a rebirth. Buddhas and arahats do not have these energies because they are completely free from the defilements that drive the whole process.

  3. Cittasamvaro August 5, 2008 / 7:57 am

    Clear and descriptive post.

    I would like to pick up on the word ‘ego’ though (para. #3 and final para.)
    In psychology the ego is the rational part of the mind that is conscious, as opposed to the less conscious super-ego or the pleasure seeking id. As such in both Freudian psychology and Buddhism it should be developed.
    In common language ego means self aggrandizement, and as such is a personality trait. Buddhism does allow for personality and the development of positive traits.
    Hence I would be cautious equating the word ‘ego’ with attaa or atman. The teaching says there is no (permanent abiding) atman in the eye, no atman in the forms no …

  4. soraj August 5, 2008 / 8:27 am

    Thanks for your comment. I agree that Buddhism does not deny the everyday sense of the ‘I’; how could one actually do that?

    Here my use of ‘ego’ is just about the same as the ‘I’; that is, first person pronoun. What is being referred to when people use the word ‘me’ to refer to themselves. After all, ‘ego’ is Latin for ‘I’. So there is the everyday sense that everybody is using, and there’s the metaphysical sense — the self subsisting entity that is the seat of personality and seat of personal identity. The latter is what is denied in Buddhism.

    So there is *nothing* that transmigrate, but that does not mean that transmigration does not take place either, for those who have the causes and conditions for it. 🙂

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